If Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit were made today, the sequel would be greenlit and in pre-production before the end of opening weekend. Originally released in 1988, its groundbreaking mix of live-action and animation proved an enormous hit with audiences and critics alike; it was the second-highest grossing film of that year, was nominated for six Oscars and went on to win three.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case with a good thing, everybody wanted to take credit for themselves. Amblin Entertainment (owned by Steven Spielberg) and Disney (owned by Michael Eisner at that time) squabbled over the rights to the character, which meant Roger’s adventures were limited to the one film and a trio of admittedly rather good shorts made to air before other cinematic releases.
Which is a shame, because we could have had an absolutely bonkers-sounding sequel called The Toon Platoon. The movie’s script, written by Nat Mauldin (who went on to write Open Season and A Christmas Story 2, if you can believe it) is still in circulation in some corners of the internet, and it’s an absolute gem. While Who Framed Roger Rabbit was an unashamedly old-school film noir, The Toon Platoon would have taken its lead from ’40s and ’50s war movies. How this never even got greenlit is baffling, especially considering the fact that (like a lot of big movies today) it’s an origin story.
Like Clark Kent before him, it turns out that Roger Rabbit was brought up by an adopted family in rural America. On his 18th birthday his Kansas parents, the Randalls, break the news that Roger isn’t in fact human – he’s a Toon (“Now I know why all the guys at school used to stare at me in the shower… “). Armed with only the bottom half of an old photo of his mother, he hitches a ride with an aspiring actor named Richie Davenport and heads to Hollywood to try and find her.
Roger doesn’t succeed in finding his mother, but he does meet another important woman in his life: his future wife Jessica (née Krupnick), who longs to make it big in showbiz but for now is stuck making sound effects on the radio à la Michael Winslow. Roger and Richie become enamoured with Jessica and her human roommate Wendy and begin to court them. All is going well – until Roger accidentally sabotages Richie’s big break in a spectacular display, just hours before the announcement of America’s entry into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The first act does a great job of expanding on the idea of a world where humans and cartoon characters coexist; though there are hints that it’s a less than harmonious existence in 1941. There’s plenty of evidence of hostility towards the Toons, and even outright segregation: Toons aren’t allowed to ride inside streetcars, or even sit in certain parts of movie theatres. It’s an interesting angle to take; maybe a rewrite would have focused on the Toons campaigning for their civil rights with someone like Mickey Mouse leading the charge?
Fast-forward a few years and the US Army is fighting on the front lines in Italy. Only this time, they have a secret weapon up their sleeves: Toon Power. It sounds like a stroke of genius. After all, what army wouldn’t want soldiers who not only can’t get tired or hungry, but who actually cannot die? Sadly, the plan doesn’t count on the Toons being seemingly unable to kill or even deliberately harm anyone; a nice little touch which keeps the tone of the script light and avoids the necessity of reshooting the nastier bits of Saving Private Ryan with the cast of Looney Tunes.
During the course of the fighting Roger and Richie are reunited. The two discover that Jessica has been kidnapped by her old radio boss Otto (who is actually a German spy) and forced to record anti-American propaganda messages. Backed up by the Toon Platoon, Richie and Roger storm a German castle to rescue Jessica, and foil Otto’s attempt to blow up Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin with a V-2 rocket. The pair are given a heroes’ welcome back in Hollywood, and Roger is given one more surprise. He is reunited with his mother, who also reveals that Roger’s father is none other than Bugs Bunny.
It’s easy to see why Steven Spielberg wasn’t exactly enamoured with The Toon Platoon: considering the director’s career includes films like Schindler’s List and the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan, he wouldn’t exactly be willing to produce a film making light of the war. Subsequent rewrites downplayed the war angle and focused on Roger meeting Jessica and becoming a star. Legendary Disney songwriter Alan Menken was brought in to write some original tunes for the film, now titled Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?
Still, the question remains as to why a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit has never been attempted. Pretty much everyone involved, from director Bob Zemeckis to Charles Fleischer (the voice of Roger), has openly stated an interest in making another film. Despite some bizarre-looking CGI test footage that’s been floating around for a few years now, Zemeckis has even insisted that, were he to make a sequel, it would use the same brand of 2D animation as the original – something that would be much easier now than it was in 1988.
Still, maybe it’s a good thing that The Toon Platoon will never see the light of day. Part of the charm of the original film is just how groundbreaking it still feels after more than 25 years. It’s a piece of movie history, not only for the way it blends live action and animation but for the unprecedented levels of cooperation between studios. This remains the only time that Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse have ever shared a screen, and considering the amount of fighting over custody of Roger Rabbit it’ll probably never happen again.
Besides, if The Phantom Menace has taught us anything, it’s that when you spend long enough waiting for something you’ll inevitably be disappointed. Better to let Who Framed Roger Rabbit remain a classic than have its reputation forever tarnished by a subpar follow-up.